A great puzzle game doesn’t stump you. It destroys you.
It was around Christmas of 2007 that I first discovered Portal, one of the best puzzle games ever made, and the game I generally view as the reason I write about this medium today. For me, it defined what a piece of interactive entertainment could and should be, as well as strengthened the fragile bond between gameplay and narrative.
I wish to tread lightly, because I’m sure many will compare Alexander Bruce’s non-Euclidean mindfuck Antichamber to Valve’s surprise hit, and that’s not exactly fair. I bring up Portal not because of thematic similarity, but because I recognize that both games do one extremely specific thing extremely well. Atmosphere.
They destroy you.
Antichamber starts about as unceremoniously as one could imagine. You find yourself in a room: one side a map, one side the game’s options, one side entirely blank, and the final side a window facing the exit. Your objective is painfully clear. Leave.
You’ll try and try, in situations big and small. The game takes no issue with stringing you along until the ground falls out beneath you (both figuratively and literally). It’s a bag of tricks that’s as deep as the game is long, and it never grows tiresome.
Level progression is remarkably non-linear, as mistakes lead to discoveries, and dead ends lead to new branches on the constantly updating map. Death is a concept foreign to Antichamber, which leads to a great deal of experimentation. You may spend hours poring over a single puzzle, or just as much time trying to make sense of the game’s ever-shifting corridors and scenery.
More remarkable than the game’s expansiveness is the almost contradictory loneliness it manages to foster. There’s this rhythm that starts to eat away at any semblance of remaining confidence: explore, return to your little map room to plan out another move, and venture back into the wild. It left me feeling like a madman, not unlike our 2012 game of the year, Fez.
Signs littered across the walls provide sometimes useful, sometimes deliberately obtuse hints and observations. These messages play into Antichamber‘s main themes of psychology and perspective. The difference between what’s real and what you think’s real is hardly ever tangible, and merely glancing at something can change its importance in the scope of a puzzle. Never have I played a game where so much happens where you’re not looking.
That uneasy feeling of hands reaching out and changing what you can’t see is prevalent, and it builds exponentially into something terrifying. Make no mistake; this isn’t a horror game. Much of it is serene and calm. But just as the titular villain in Slender remains scary by staying barely out of view, Antichamber‘s Escher-like machinations never let you catch your breath.
I would be remiss to forget mentioning the stellar audio design, which is the third leg of the game’s truly immersive stool. The situations you find yourself in aren’t just lonely, but empty also, and the ambient echoes go a long way towards communicating that. What music is present is generally quite good, though it’s often sparse and quiet.
I hesitate to say much about the game’s puzzles, as their discovery is half the fun, but it may be worth mentioning a specific gun which plays a significant role in the journey. It’s essentially a matter transport device that can suck up blocks and spit them back out. That’s all I’ll say about it, but rest assured that just like everything in this game, there’s more to it than your first impression might assume.
Right around the time I hit the game’s closing moments (around 10 hours in, if you’re curious), it hit me in waves how brilliantly it was designed. So much of it is based around teaching you things about geometry that aren’t true, and what’s amazing is that it works. In that final stretch I was performing any number of abstract, physically impossible tasks, and not once did it feel unnatural. It’s one thing to ask a player to do something crazy, and it’s another to make that craziness such a part of a world that it ceases being remarkable. The first time Antichamber hit me over the head with impracticality was scary, but it was scarier when it all made sense.
I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand the point of Antichamber, or if there’s even a point to be had. Does that bother me? Not terribly. Because even without grandiose thematic implications, Antichamber is as impactful as any game I’ve played. In an industry constantly veering toward the bigger and lumpier, it’s becoming increasingly hard not to recognize the independent games scene as a bastion of ingenuity. It’s a rare thing to find a game this precise, this intent on doing its one thing better than anything that’s come before. I stared into its atmospheric void, and it stared defiantly back at me.
Antichamber just might be a game about the way people lose themselves in their own heads, constantly building up little, impractical paper houses before redefining what’s impractical in the first place.